When your spouse sustains fatal injuries, your life usually becomes unbearably complicated. Over time, you learn how to manage your grief. Before you feel the peace that time and distance provide, you must often confront pressing legal issues. As the spouse and closest relative, you must decide whether to make a wrongful death claim against the person who caused your late spouse’s death. You must also resolve issues related to your late spouse’s debts and assets.
When dealing with so many internal and external pressures, you will feel compelled to delay any complex legal processes and protocols. That is often a natural reaction to your circumstances. Unfortunately, many of the most pressing legal issues have time restrictions. They often require your immediate attention at a time when you can least provide it. It is one of those times when it makes sense to step away from the situation and let a legal representative take over.
Your Spouse’s Creditors Want Immediate Consideration
When a debtor dies, creditors usually wait for what they believe is an appropriate time, then they begin making demands. While you are struggling to make it through each day, they want to know if and when you will pay. Even if you feel that paying your late spouse’s bills is the prudent thing to do, it may or may not be your legal responsibility. When a spouse dies, financial issues become entangled in the probate process. You make payments based on statutory requirements. If your spouse has a will, it helps make the process easier, but it is rarely as simple as you need it to be.
Debt-related issues become especially complicated when a loved one dies. That is primarily because each couple handles debt in different ways. One spouse has the right to go into debt without the other spouse’s permission. Couples commonly have both joint and separate checking, retirement, investment, and credit accounts. They buy houses, purchase furniture, and accumulate credit card debt jointly and separately. They buy cars and real property with or without the other’s signature or authorization.
When your deceased spouse has debts that are separate from yours, they become part of their estate. You do not have the duty or the right to pay debtors until you comply with all applicable laws. If you become the estate’s personal representative, you must manage their debts and assets through the probate process.
Responsibility for Your Spouse’s Debts
Guidelines vary from state to state. As a Pennsylvania spouse, your responsibility for your spouse’s debt depends on the original debt agreement. If you and your late spouse entered into a joint obligation, you are responsible for your share of the debt. You are also responsible for a portion of your late spouse’s debt if you signed as a co-maker or guarantor for a purchase. If your spouse entered into a credit arrangement without you, in most situations you don't need to pay any portion of the amount owed.
In determining responsibility for your spouse’s financial transactions, Pennsylvania’s equitable distribution principle applies. It requires that a court determine an equitable distribution of marital assets and liabilities. While this principle arises most often during a divorce or annulment, it also applies when determining asset distribution after death. Under these guidelines, a husband or wife is responsible only for their own financial commitments. When a spouse dies, they are not automatically responsible for debts they did not incur.
Debt is handled differently in California, Arizona, and 7 other community property states. In those states, most assets and liabilities accumulated during the marriage become part of the community estate. While courts have the discretion to make exceptions, in most situations assets and liabilities are subject to a 50-50 community division.
What Happens to a Deceased Spouse’s Debts?
If you live in Pennsylvania, the Consolidated Statutes, Title 20 Decedents, Estates, and Fiduciaries, establish the legal guidelines you must follow. Your spouse’s death does not eliminate a person or entity’s right to recover debts, liens, or charges. Most creditors retain their right to receive payment; however, of those seeking payment, some have low priority status.
Whether the person or entity receives payment depends on the estate's funds, the order of payment, and the total debt. If your spouse has more debts and liabilities than assets, some creditors will likely receive nothing.
The Estate’s Personal Representative Manages the Financial Issues
If your late spouse’s will names you the executor of their estate, you must handle the debts according to probate laws and rules. If your spouse did not leave a will, you must request that the court name you the estate’s administrator. When you become the executor or administrator of your late spouse’s estate, you handle their debts under Pennsylvania statutes.
As a personal representative, you have numerous responsibilities.
- Locate the will and have it probated to validate the will.
- Locate, document, and protect the estate’s assets.
- Locate and notify all the heirs.
- Pay debts, costs, estate taxes out of the estate’s proceeds.
- Comply with legal guidelines, requirements, and procedures.
- Distribute property to heirs.
While you can handle many of these issues on your own, you should consider working with an attorney. Administering an estate often involves numerous responsibilities and details, and your actions must comply with state and federal laws. The process is often emotionally exhausting when you are already struggling to handle your grief and loss. An attorney understands the issues and can do everything possible to simplify the process.
Pennsylvania Statutes Prioritize all Debts and Claims
Your spouse’s personal representative pays debts and other claims out of the assets in his or her estate. Creditors receive payment only if your deceased spouse has enough assets to cover other costs with a higher designated priority.
Creditors receive money based on the Order of Payment in Title 20, Chapter 33, Subchapter E, § 3392.
- Estate administration costs.
- Family per person exemption amount: $3,500.
- Decedent’s funeral and burial costs, cost of medication, nursing, hospital, and other services received within six months of the decedent’s death, medical services paid under a medical assistance program.
- Grave markers.
- Decedent’s rent for six months before death: 5(1)Claims by Pennsylvania or any political subdivision.
- All other claims.
If any assets remain in the estate after these designated payments, creditors and others with claims against the estate receive consideration. If the estate does not have enough money to pay all entitlements and debts, the estate is considered insolvent. Some of those seeking payments will not receive anything. With a few exceptions, a person or entity has one year from the decedent’s death to file a claim against the estate.
What Is Included in Your Spouse’s Estate?
Your spouse’s estate consists of those items in your spouse’s name only. This sometimes includes bank accounts, bonds, stocks, IRAs, and any real and personal property in the decedent’s name only. Certain items do not become an asset in your spouse’s estate. These include items such as life insurance proceeds, annuities, assets in a revocable trust, jointly-owned bank accounts, jointly-owned real estate, and any financial assets with designated beneficiaries.
Your Spouse’s Personal Representative
Before you take steps to distribute your spouse’s assets, the probate court must formally acknowledge you as your late spouse’s personal representative. When you file the appropriate documents, the Probate Court’s Register of Wills issues a Short Certificate acknowledging your authority to manage your late spouse’s estate.
A short certificate names you as either an executor or an administrator.
- Executor: If your late spouse names you executor of their estate, you must produce the original will, any codicils, a death certificate, and a valid ID. You must present your documentation to the Register of Wills in the county where your spouse died. You also pay a probate fee. The Register of Wills issues a document called Letters Testamentary. This short certificate allows you to fulfill the administrator’s duties for your late spouse’s estate.
- Administrator: If your spouse died without leaving a formal will, you must request that the probate court issue Letters of Administration. To obtain this authority, you must present a death certificate. If you are not the sole next of kin, you must also provide notarized renunciations from other relatives who qualify to administer the estate. For Pennsylvania residents, Title 20 §3155, Persons entitled, provides a list of other persons entitled to act as an administrator when your spouse dies intestate.
Your Duties as a Personal Representative
Once you receive a formal appointment as your late spouse’s personal representative, you must publish an Advertisement of Grants and Letters to publicize your appointment as executor or administrator. You must place your ad in a general publication near the decedent’s residence. You must also place an ad in a legal publication, such as The Legal Intelligencer. You must run the ads weekly for three weeks. Your ad places on notice all parties who believe they have valid charges, debts, or liens against the decedent or their property.
The ads must include a list of required details.
- Your name and position as executor or administrator.
- Details about the deceased.
- A request that creditors contact you if they wish to make a claim.
- Information to contact your legal representative.
Your duties as administrator or executive also include these tasks and many others.
- Obtain a bond: Unless a will specifically waives the bond, you must obtain a fidelity bond in an amount equal to the estate’s value. A bond is similar to an insurance policy. It provides a financial guarantee that you will honor your financial commitments and administer the estate properly.
- Inventory all assets: The court gives you a deadline by which you must file a complete assets inventory. The inventory includes valuations for all real properties and personal assets. If you live in Pennsylvania, an inventory does not include real properties outside the state.
- Continue businesses: As an estate administrator or executor, you may become involved in operating your deceased spouse’s business or managing proxies.
- Manage assets: You must maintain and preserve all assets. If it is within your granted authority, you may sell or lease your deceased spouse’s real property.
- Address Objections: Any person with a financial interest in the estate has the right to object to the inventory or the account. The court determines if the objecting party presents their objections during the account audit.
Creditors Are the Last Priority
A year or more after you take on the duties of managing your late spouse’s estate, you finalize the process. A final accounting takes place only after you have waited the appropriate time for creditors to come forward. It also occurs in compliance with a court order. Creditors will have remained on-hold, while you distributed all bequeathed and jointly owned assets, sold solely owned personal and real property, converted assets to cash, and complied with any court orders related to asset disposition.
When appropriate, you distribute your spouse’s estate based on Order of Payment priority. You pay creditors, lien holders, and any other debtors only if you have enough financial resources left. If you do not have enough to pay all the creditors, you must file documentation to have the estate declared insolvent. Creditors usually receive a proportionate share of the remaining funds.
Do You Need an Attorney to Manage Your Spouse’s Estate?
When your spouse dies, you need legal guidance as soon as possible. Whether their death occurred due to illness, natural causes, or an accident, you encounter legal issues that may be too complicated to resolve on your own. If your spouse executed a will, the attorney who prepared the document usually assists you with probate compliance. If someone else’s negligence caused your spouse’s death, you also need a wrongful death attorney to present your claim or file a wrongful death lawsuit.
When you consult with an attorney you have an opportunity to share your concerns. A compassionate legal representative listens to you and provides invaluable feedback. You learn about your legal options and about critical issues related to liability, damage, and legal time constraints. Contact an attorney today for more information about your legal options.